The Thinning Veil, Part Twelve

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Chapter 35 | Chapter 36 | Chapter 37

Chapter 35

Chapter 35

Reggie ran for the door only to find it locked. He turned and ran back to the window, hoping to find a way to yell for help. When that effort proved futile, he picked up the phone on the desk, it was dead. So was his cell phone.

Vecom flew up to where he was parallel with Reggie’s face, just a few spaces away from his nose. “I would not recommend leaving this room,” he said. “You’re fifteen stories off the ground.”

“Yes, but there’s an elevator that can take me to the ground floor, and if that’s out of order, there are stairs. All buildings have to have stairs,” Reggie said, his voice betraying his panic.

“Not really,” Vecom said. “You see, there is a reason this room was available when everything else is full: it’s not real.”

Reggie looked around, confused. “What do you mean?” He asked. He was beginning to feel desperate. “Everything here is real. I sat on the chair, the sofa, the bed. I’ve touched the desk, the curtains, the window. They’re not real?”

“Nope, it’s all magic, big boy,” Breen said. “We created it just for you so that you could experience for yourself what it’s like to be trapped and kept in a place that is nothing like your home. Just like you did those birds you captured with Puckwudjinee.”

“But… But… “ Reggie stammered, “I didn’t keep them long. I let them go. They’re animals, they don’t have emotions.”

“Points off for lack of enlightenment,” Kek said as he made a mark on an imaginary clipboard.

“But it’s for science,” Reggie continued to protest. “We study the birds so that we can learn and improve our lives!”

“That’s why you kill them and take them apart?” Breen asked.

“Well, yes, I guess,” Reggie said. “That’s the only way we can study their brains and look for links to earth’s magnetic system.”

“So, taking one life to improve another makes the death justifiable, does it?” Vecom asked as he paced along the desk. “That’s an interesting premise. I’ll have to remember that one when we’re done with you.”

“Wait. Wait!” Reggie said. He was in full panic now, fearing for his life. “What do you mean?” What are you going to do with me?”

“Study you, just like you did the birds,” Breen said. “I thought we already answered that one.”

“Points off for not paying attention,” Kek said, making another mark in the air.

“So, when you’re done studying me, you’ll just open the door and let me walk out?” Reggie asked.

“Would you like that?” Kek asked, smiling mischievously.

“Yes, please,” Reggie said.

“Let me remind you, again, that you are 15 stories high in the air,” said Vecom. “There are no other floors below us. There is no hotel. The one that was here burned. Even if it was still standing, it only had twelve floors because the silly person who built it was superstitious.”

Kek laughed. “Humans. They’ll believe stupid things that are fake but call fake the things that are real!”

“We have to study you first, of course,” Breen said. She flew over and snatched a few hairs from the top of Reggie’s head.

“Ouch!” Reggie objected, covering his wounded scalp with his hand.

“Hmm, so removing human fur is painful for them just like removing animal fur or bird feathers,” Breen said. “Interesting helix shape, too. Different from the oval-shaped hair that kept falling from the heads of those other humans we used to see in the building. It’s kinda cute.”

Kek flew over and took a look. “So, he’s not native to this continent?”

“I was born in Burbank,” Reggie said. “That’s still on this continent.”

“Burbank?” Breen asked. “Is that why your skin is darker and more full of melanin?”

“No, it’s not,” Reggie said. “A couple of hundred years ago, I had ancestors who left the African continent and came to this one?”

“Why would they do that?” Breen asked. “The African basin is home base for you humans. I would think that would be a better environment for you.”

“I’m not sure they were given a choice,” Reggie answered.

“Humans have such interestingly short lives,” Vecom said, flying over to study one of Reggie’s hairs. “They don’t live too many seasons and they don’t pass on their information very well as others do.”

“I suppose you guys do it better,” Reggie said, feeling a strange need to defend his species. “Tell me, what do you know about your great-grandparents?”

“What’s a grandparent?” Kek asked.

“Your parent’s parent,” Reggie answered.

Kek and Breen looked at each other with a puzzled expression. “Our parents’ parents?” Breen asked. “That doesn’t make sense. Kek and I share parents. They saw us created from the same core, a petal from a Queen of the Night. We were the only beings formed from that flower. There was no one before us. Our parents then bestowed on us their magic which gives us the benefit of all their learning and experience.”

“What about whoever gave them their magic?” Reggie asked. “Their magic had to come from somewhere.”

Breen and Kek exchanged looked again. “Inana, I suppose,” Kek said. “She gave the magic to all those who were here before the humans, I think.”

“Only some,” Vecom said. “Aten shared magic as well. And then, don’t forget the titans. Dasheng Sen is one of the daughters of Oceanus. All the titans shared with magical souls.”

Reggie sat on a corner of the bed. He was hoping that he could keep the little ones distracted, talking about themselves until he could find a way to escape. “So, you all are the offspring of ancient deities,” he said. “And you have all those thousands of years of memories available to you? That seems like a lot of information to keep up with.”

“Not if your brain is designed to run efficiently,” Vecom said. “Human brains are wired in a very inefficient way.”

“Ooh! Maybe we should take a look at his!” Kek said, flying close and peering under Reggie’s eyelid as he pulled on it.

“No!” Reggie yelled. “Stay out of my brain!”

“What, it’s okay for you to study brains but not us?” Vecom asked.

“We only examine brains after an animal is dead,” Reggie said.

“Right after you killed it,” Breen charged. 

“It’s a necessary sacrifice for scientific understanding to move forward,” Reggie said.

“But you can’t wait for souls to die naturally, can you?” Kek said. His voice sounded more angry and menacing now. That made Reggie nervous.

“We need brains as soon after death as possible,” the scientist said, “and it takes too long to find deceased animals in the wild.”

“What you mean is that it’s not convenient for you to go out and look for naturally deceased animals. You don’t have to leave the lab. If you have a collection that you can kill at will you can be cavalier in your approach to their lives,” Breen said.

“This is one of the many places where humans have failed to evolve,” Vecom said. “Humans who first inhabited this land understood that life is valuable regardless of species. They took only what they needed and honored the spirits of those who gave their lives. Not you, Reggie. Remember that time you got upset and cursed at everyone because you didn’t have enough lab rats to kill? Did you ever stop to think that rats have spirits, too? Your ancestors did, but here you are having progressed backward, breeding animals simply so they can be killed at your convenience, not caring whether your experiments amount to any good or not, more worried about the budget than the lives being spent in your work.”

“Look, I’m not the one who set the standards for what is acceptable in research,” Reggie said. He was feeling that these tiny beings were blaming him for all of humanity’s faults.

“Neither are you the one who challenged them,” Kek said. “You went along, played the game, gave in to the status quo rather than rock the boat, and risk your precious funding.”

Reggie was on his feet again, nervously pacing the floor, wondering where this was all going. “Why me? Why am I the one up in this box and not the head of the department? Or the dean of the school? Or the publishers of scientific magazines with their biased requirements? I am not the horrible person you make me out to be!”

“You are the one who captured Puckwudgjinee,” Vecom said. “We have sent word to Queen Apa’ii that we are holding you prisoner. She will decide your fate.”

“Don’t I at least get a fair trial? A chance to defend myself?” Reggie asked.

“Fairness is a totally arbitrary measure, isn’t it?” asked Kek.

“Is it fair to capture birds and transport them to somewhere strange?” Breen asked.

“Is it fair to demand that young humans, the ones you call interns, work so hard on your projects but get none of the credit?” Kek asked.

“Is it fair that humans assume that they are the only souls with fully developed language on the laughable basis that they are unable to translate anything an animal says?” Vecom asked.

“The great apes tried to teach you, but all humans hear are grunts,” Breen said. “Same for songbirds. Humans listen but they’re mentally incapable of understanding.”

“Yet, you still think you’re the smart ones,” Kek said, “because you make machines.”

“We’re improving our quality of life,” Reggie argued. 

“But have you actually made things better?” Vecom asked. “The more you invent, the more you create, the more stressed you become, the more diseases you cause, the more conflict you introduce into your own society, and the more damage you do to the entire planet!”

“Did you ever stop to think that perhaps the other inhabitants are tired of humans fucking things up for everyone else?” Breen asked.

Reggie stood looking out the window at the burned-out relic of a city below him. He wondered how many had died, how many hadn’t been able to escape the sudden ferocity of the fires. If the trio was right, that all this had happened because of his experiment, then perhaps, he thought for just a moment, that he, too, deserved to die. He sat down on the sofa and buried his face in his hands. What were his options, he wondered? If everything around him was dependent on magic, what would happen if the magic went away? Would he fall to his death, another bloody splat in the middle of a barren landscape?

“What happens to me now?” Reggie asked softly. “Are you going to kill me as a sacrifice for all humanity’s sins?”

“Boy, is this guy dramatic,” Kek said.

“First, we’re going to eat,” Breen replied.

“Knock, knock, room service,” Kek teased. “And what is on our menu tonight?”

Vecom produced a cartful of covered trays and mimicking the voice of a British butler announced, “To start, we have vegan mini blinis with carrot lox and celeriac and potato rostis. Then, we have chocolate and balsamic roasted beets along with a warm spinach salad with figs and butternut squash. Our entree this evening is portobello steaks with Avacado chimichurri, and finally, a blueberry and vanilla posset, all of which were sourced and created without oppressing any species, or culture, or unfairly taking advantage of natural resources.”

Reggie stared at the delicious-looking food on the cart in front of him. “I don’t get it,” he said. “You berate me and tell me how horrible I am, then offer me this gourmet meal as though we were at some fancy restaurant. Why? Why would you do this?”

“Why would you ask rather than eat?” Breen questioned.

Kek flew over and picked up a fork. “I mean, if you don’t want it, I’m more than happy to take care of this for you. Just because we’re small doesn’t mean we don’t have enormous appetites.”

Reggie stared at the cart. “Is this even real or is it all some kind of magic?”

“You say that as if magic and reality are not intertwined. We chose this because we want to show you humans can live comfortably and have pleasurable lives without destroying the planet and everything around them at the same time,” Vecom said. “Humans claim they’re only trying to make things better, but I don’t think they understand what better is.”

Reggie took one of the blinis from the tray and popped it in his mouth, suddenly aware of how little he had eaten over the past two days. “This is wonderful,” he said with his mouth still full.

“Geeze, manners!” Breen scolded.

“Try taking smaller bites,” Kek said. “No one’s going to steal it. Probably.”

Reggie pulled the office chair up to the cart and started eating. The food was perfectly prepared so that he became lost in the pleasure of dining. There was even an appropriate red wine to drink. His stomach seemed to want everything at once but he tried to pace himself just in case this turned out to be his last meal. He didn’t notice that the pixiemandalons had disappeared. They had flown over to a corner and were talking among themselves.

“He sure does have a big mouth,” Breen observed.

“He eats a lot, too,” Kek said.

“What are we going to do with him?” Breen asked.

“The food is designed to make him go to sleep,” Vecom said. “When he wakes up in the morning, his first thought will be that this was all a dream. Then, he’ll walk over to the window and see the reality again. And we’ll continue to show him the fallacies of human logic and thought.”

“Ugh, how long do we have to keep up this torture?” Kek asked.

“Until Apa’ii decides what she wants to do with him,” Vecom answered. “Perhaps she’ll make an example of him. I don’t know. Humans are so self-absorbed I’m not sure they’re yet paying attention despite all that’s happened. You heard what Reggie said. He didn’t have a clue the fires were part of a war. Apa’ii may need to adjust her tactics.”

“At least we have something to play with,” Breen said. “Can I mess with his dreams, show him what it would be like if the roles between humans and animals were reversed?”

“Make him fall out of bed,” Kek laughed.

“No one said his sleep had to be restful,” Vecom answered. “Human minds are thick and the smarter they think they are the more difficult it is to convince them of anything.”

By the time Reggie finished the posset, he had almost forgotten about the pixiemandalons and that he was being held captive. He took off his shoes and stretched out across the bed. Sleep came quickly but not peacefully.

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Chapter 36

Chapter 36

Bockwimen strode into the throne room to find Meliae, Fleau, and Pausnuck carefully keeping track of migrant activity along freshwater sources. Pockwatch and Queen Apa’ii were discussing whether to populate the new landmass. As he approached the queen he felt an anxious tightening in his stomach. Instinctively, he reverted to his wolf form. Apa’ii saw the sudden change and started looking around, listening for any signs of danger. The room went silent as they strained to pick up on anything or anyone who might present a problem. After several minutes with no discovery, Bockwimen switched back to his normal form. “I’m sorry for the alert,” he said. “Being away from the home tree is making me a bit jumpy, I suppose.”

“I noted a similar response from Bogmenak,” Apa’ii said. “Have humans become that frightening?”

“No more so than usual,” Bockwimen replied. “But having to deal with them while still keeping watch for the Hantu Air is exhausting.”

“We have a truce,” Apa’ii said. “If there is any violation of that, I want to know.”

“They haven’t done anything,” Bockwimen said, “But I’m not sure many souls trust them to not break the truce if we’re not on guard. Tensions are still high through all the communities.”

“Migration patterns echo that fear as well,” Fleau said. “No one wants to be near any of the lakes or large rivers. Colonies around some creeks are being abandoned as well. We may not be flinging and dodging magic but as a group, no one seems terribly trusting.”

“From what Pockwatch told me, though,” Apa’ii said, “Not all the freshwater souls are necessarily loyal to Dasheng Sen. They know what she wants and see little place for them in her vision. Perhaps now might be the time to show some courtesy.”

Bockwimen shook his head. “Too great a chance of spies. As long as there’s a truce there’s less motivation for them to change allegiance because the thing they fear isn’t happening. Only when they see saltwater taking over their beds should we have those conversations.” 

“Are you saying there’s a bad time for good faith?” Apa’ii asked.

“No, I’m questioning why Merric told you of a weakness,” Bockwimen said. “Is he, a salt-water soul of great power, really interested in the concerns of freshwater souls with less power and valuable beds? Or could it possibly be a trap, lure us in close, put us in the position of trusting them, only for them to attack when we’re most vulnerable?”

“That does seem to be asking a lot of one’s enemy,’ Meliae said. “Dasheng Sen’s betrayal is why we’re in this predicament in the first place. They’re going to need to keep things quiet and normal during the truce or they’re not going to have any value to negotiate anything else.”

“I think we’re all correct in different ways,” Apa’ii said. “Regardless of Merric’s intentions, I don’t doubt that there are some freshwater clans with a genuine reason to be concerned about their longevity. I also think there are plenty who would use that premise to trap us. I would rather be prepared for both. If someone asks for sanctuary I would be inclined to give it to them with limitations and oversight, but let that be a passive action. We will not offer anything to those who do not ask. Play with extreme caution.”

Pausnuck turned to Bockwimen and asked, “Are we freely talking to humans now? Or are there rules folk need to know? It’s happening a lot and I’m sensing some mixed reactions.”

Bockwimen shook his head. “Do we have a legitimate need to police every interaction with humans? That seems to be a waste of energy. Personally, I enjoy the expression on their faces when they realize a wolf is talking to them. Unless the humans start responding aggressively, I’d rather that not be a point of interference.”

“I see an open path there for unintended consequences,” Pausnuck said, objecting. “If everyone follows the same rules we can better avoid any trouble spots before they get too big. When everyone is doing it, running around scaring humans for the fun of it, we’re going to have some who go too far, and when they do it could put the whole species on alert, making them more aggressive.”

“Since when have we been great rule keepers?” Fleau said. “We’ve set rules before and the only ones who obeyed are the ones that risk immediate punishment from the queen. No one has the time or even a good system for tracking souls like that.”

“Pausnuck’s right about the unintended consequences,“ Meliae responded. “But I worry that setting rules only makes that likelihood more certain. Set a limit of any kind and some souls will see how close they can crowd that line. One doesn’t have to do something wrong for the results to go sideways. Humans are irrational and lack cohesiveness in unmanipulated response. That we’re communicating with them at all means someone’s going to get a bad result. Perhaps, rather than trying to top the inevitable, we decide how to address those issues when they happen.”

“The challenge is exactly what has kept us silent and hidden for thousands of seasons,” Apa’ii said. “The humans we deal with now are more aggressive personalities than we dealt with during the ancient wars. They are more self-focused. They don’t want to recognize any power or authority outside themselves and in that environment, we cannot expect a welcoming or enthusiastic response from them.”

The queen paused, her aura changing to a light green before she continued. “Consider the ones we currently have captured, living in floating boxes they think are hotel rooms. We have 4,000 of them, captured without even the slightest struggle, because we fed their selfish desires, giving them, or making them think we were giving them something they desired. Every last one of them followed along, falling into the trap because it fit where they wanted to go. That these captives are, allegedly, among the most intelligent of human specimens shows us how easily and successfully they can be manipulated. They say they don’t believe we exist, that our existence isn’t possible because magic isn’t possible, but even as they’re not believing what they’re seeing and hearing, they still follow when they think they’re being led to the answers they’ve been seeking. If the most educated among them can be trapped so easily, and so quickly, could we not, in theory, enslave them all? I don’t think we should focus as much on random response as we should leading them into situations where they produce the response more favorable to us.”

Pockwatch pulled his pipe from his belt and lit it, sending a small cloud of blue-gree smoke into the air. “Your majesty,” he said calmly, “Might I dare suggest that none of the solutions offered here are incorrect or unworkable. Rather, each reflects differing situations within the human population. I might even argue that, to a limited extent, even Bogmenak’s direct approach was effective. We’re not going to see those scientists poking around the mist border again. They lost two of their number and while one might argue that they did not know that they were participants in a war against them, one might as easily argue that telling them beforehand would not have stopped them from encroaching upon sacred land, but merely changed their tactics. 

“Even now, and Bockwimen can answer if I’m wrong, they’re considering how to approach us from the air. Bockwimen warned them not to return, and they won’t do so on foot, but that does not stop them from trying different routes. One cannot manipulate humans in such a way as to expect a universal response. We have to be varied in our tactics and, I would urge, leave nothing off the table as long as it is intelligently reasoned.”

As Pockwatch released another cloud of smoke, Fleau flew into the blue-green fog, enjoying the floral fragrance. “I think Pockwatch is right and, regarding the humans trespassing, what would happen if we gave them what they think they want. Let them see the mountain. Let them set foot on our sacred ground, and then hold them captive so they can see their own errors. Let Bogmenak and the Yarrats hold them until they finally see how their approach to science hurts the very thing they claim to care about.”

“Wait, are you suggesting we let humans inside the mist?” Bockwimen asked, his voice suddenly angry. “I see no intelligent basis for that at all and I am quite sure that Bogmenak would not go along. He was quite pleased to hear of the deaths caused by his stunt in the forest. We cannot trust him to treat prisoners with anything approaching fairness. He would just as soon kill them all.”

“So, do to them what we did to the others we’ve captured,” suggested Pausnuk. “Make them think they’re getting what they want and trap them in the magic of a place that doesn’t exist. Give them a fictional mountain outside sacred space while hiding the real thing. We can then keep them, allow them to learn and understand, without directly putting our homes and souls in danger. After all, these are still scientists we’re talking about, right?”

“To a degree, yes,” said Bockwimen, “but they are a special kind also known as bureaucrats. They have scientific knowledge and understanding but they use it to facilitate a government system that promotes itself as a means to an end.”

“That makes absolutely no sense,” Meliae said.

“They’re humans,” Bockwimen reminded her. “Logic is far from being their strong suit. If anything, they have grown more illogical over the past several seasons, maybe even anti-logical. They are building a system that ignores their own need and rewards stupidity and graft. That’s why I worry about our dealings with them. We might expect a reasonable response but the reality is that they will consistently choose the more self-serving option each time, even if it is the most insane option available.”

“Here, then, is what we will do,” said Apa’ii, her countenance now a blue-gree that matched the smoke of Pockwatch’s pipe. “We will create a false mountain, one not on sacred space, one detached from earth itself, something the humans can see and, in ways we determine, set foot upon. We then hold them captive; teaching them, studying them, guiding them to a better understanding of all that we are, releasing them only when we are sure that doing so is mutually beneficial.” 

The assembled group of counselors all applauded except for Meliae. Noticing her reticence, Apa’ii made herself smaller and said, “You still have some reservations, my friend? Please, do tell me. You have said the least through this conversation.”

Meliae bit her lower lip, unsure she wanted to say anything opposed to the queen’s edict. After a moment of internal deliberation, she said, “I still question whether we’re not being as selfish and insensitive as we accuse humans of being. We’ve all watched them over the thousands and millions of seasons. We’ve seen their attempts to try to forcibly reeducate each other to conform with whoever was in power. Such efforts not only inevitably fail but too often mask other crimes justified in the name of trying to help people better fit into the prescribed society.”

She paused and looked at Apa’ii, trying to judge whether she was stepping over any lines of protocol. Only after the queen smiled did she continue. “I understand that we are at war and do not challenge that decision. I understand that being at war changes the rules of behavior out of necessity. What concerns me is our end goal. Are we content with peaceful cohabitation with humans or are we trying to dominate them? Are we concerned about their learning who we are or are we insisting that they yield to magic norms and magic governance? Are we looking for peace or are we simply changing the roles from oppressed to the oppressor? The lines we are drawing seem impossibly thin and perhaps too easy to cross.”

The throne room was quiet in anticipation of Apa’ii’s response. The queen’s countenance didn’t change. She allowed the silence to sit a moment before saying, “Your concerns are valid and it is well that you raise them. The line between leading and oppressing is a dangerous thing, especially in moments of war. I fear that there are many of us, Bogmenak for example, who could likely choose the role of oppressor and feel justified in doing so. Others would not necessarily choose that role but would find themselves there by not being aware of the effect their actions have. 

“The question then becomes, what responsibility are we willing to take for the actions of those we’ve given open-ended power? At what point do we intervene and, if necessary, do we punish?” Apa’ii paused again, pacing slowly as she considered her options. She knew she would forever be judged, at least in part, by the decision she made at this moment and wanted to appreciate the consequences of her decision turned out to be wrong. The weight of the moment caused her countenance to dim. Only when she finally began to speak did it return.

“Thin lines are the home of those with bad intentions,” she said. “Whatever we do here fails our values if allowed to become a habit. What starts with good intentions is too often decayed over time, stepping into harm while thinking they’re doing good. Therefore, to avoid the potential corruption of authority, we will not put the power nor the responsibility in a sole person or a static group. 

“We will ask each clan to provide a group to observe and study our human subjects for ten solar days. During those ten days, they will be monitored by the preceding team with the first group monitored by the counselors here in this room. If at any point, a team is observed to engage in deliberate torture, they will be removed and punished appropriately. Unlike what we are doing with the scientists, this time we set only five traps on the most inhabited continents. Each clan has the option to deal with inhabitants as they see fit and to work with all five sites if their practice proves to be helpful. If at any point, however, we see no positive results across more than six successive teams, then the entire operation must be shut down and the humans returned to their normal lives. We will not allow the Nawa’ Diyo to become the instrument of evil.”

The counselors looked at each other, unsure what a safe response might be. Apa’ii sensing their hesitation, added, “I know there’s an opportunity for disaster. That opportunity is present no matter what we do at this juncture. We can’t ignore what’s happening but we have to acknowledge the risks, mitigate what we can, and know from the beginning that if perfection had ever been an option we wouldn’t be in this situation. Mistakes are regrettable even when inevitable. We are trusting that the nature of a magical soul is pure. We have never needed to test that trust in such a measure until now. May we not find our trust misplaced.
“Fleau and Pausnuck, you coordinate with the clans and establish a schedule. We’ll begin setting your traps to match tomorrow’s satellite schedule. Document everything and maintain vigilance. There is still tension with the troubled ones. They have gone suddenly quiet. We do well to expect a sudden surprise attack in some form. Be careful.”

Apa’ii paused once more and smiled. “You are all wise counselors,” she said. “Through your wisdom, we create a better world for everyone.” She turned and left the throne room with a glimmer, retreating to her personal space. The traps were going to take a lot more magic than the hotel rooms. She knew she could rely on help from Belinda but she was not fully convinced that would be enough. Everything about the traps would have to appear authentic. She knew where more power existed. What she couldn’t know for sure was whether the souls holding that power could be trusted.

Chapter 37

Chapter 37

Brad sat uncomfortably in the plush chair facing Timothy Elliot’s desk. They had managed to keep Andy and Sally’s deaths quiet outside of USGS but internally there were still a lot of questions needing answers and the morning’s satellite photos weren’t helping any of the discussions. The mountain had completely disappeared after Nadia’s team was extracted from the forest. All the survivors were placed on paid leave and given intense psychiatric treatment. The fear that lives were lost because of an imaging glitch was looking real and Brad expected Dr. Elliot to drop the blame on his desk. He’d have to resign. 

Then, the latest pass showed yet a different picture. Now, there wasn’t just one mountain, there were five, each on a different continent, each located in territory the United States might not consider friendly. The political and military implications dwarfed scientific curiosity. Another team needed to be sent out but Brad knew that no one under him would volunteer. He also knew he wouldn’t be the one in charge.

Dr. Elliot walked into the office through a side door from an adjoining conference room. His short-cropped gray hair almost glowed against the background of dark wood paneling that needed a new coat of stain. He dropped a set of over-stuffed file folders on his desk then looked over at Brad with tired blue eyes. “Everyone in every agency swears there’s no imaging glitch. They want us to believe that the first image was mispositioned, that we lost two scientists because we sent them to the wrong place. Our choice is to either play nice and try to gain some scientific value from what’s about to happen or we fuss and get locked out altogether, which, I promise, comes with job cuts.”

“So you want us to play along,” Brad said. “Put another team out there, risk more lives for something that is almost certainly a technological error. Do you really expect me to issue that requirement? Do you think anyone is going to respond positively? I have seven empty desks, two draped in black, because I didn’t require more verification the first time. I’m not making that same mistake again.”

“Would eyes-on verification from a military source be sufficient?” the director asked. He sat down behind the desk and took a drink of coffee. “Admiral Hodgkins says their boys have confirmation for the sites in Pennsylvania, Columbia, and Egypt. Getting confirmation from Russia and China could be a little more difficult but apparently, that landmass in the Atlantic has everyone rattled so they’re not being sneaking about all the air traffic in those regions. They’re thinking of a team that includes a couple of our people, a couple of folks from NOAA, and a couple more from land management accompanied by a battalion of Marines for security purposes. They’re not going to let us send anyone to the wrong place this time, either. We’re going in by air so there’s plenty of knowledge and confirmation of who is where. And it’s coming out of their budget, not ours.”

“I’m still not sure that’s going to be enough to convince anyone to volunteer, Tim,” Brad said. “Have you tried visiting with Nadia? Or Terri? They had the least direct exposure and the effect of the poison on their skin is like they have radiation burns. We’re talking Chernobyl-level burns. The rumor is floating now that this is all some military cover-up and that they want to cover their tracks. Having military confirmation isn’t the most reliable evidence on this topic.”

Dr. Elliot sighed. “I need your support on this, Brad. We need to be seen as team players. They’re treating this as a national security issue and you know the politics that go with that designation. What do I need to do to get you and our science teams on board?”

Brad shrugged and said, “I don’t know. Maybe put us on a plane and let us see for ourselves?”

“I can do better than that,” said Admiral Hodgkins as he walked through the office door unannounced. “Sorry, Dr. Elliot, I thought this might save some time.” He dropped a new stack of fresh photographs on Tim’s desk. “Those are less than two hours old,” the admiral said. “Both pilots confirm the visual, but you’re right, having independent verification helps build consensus. I will have a chopper on your roof in 45 minutes. Both of you should go, take a couple of others with you. Take a camera if you want. While the topic is classified for external sources, internally we need as many eyes on this as we can get. We won’t have much time before this hits the media. There are a couple of videos online already. By noon, we’ll be facing some uncomfortable questions and I need to tell people that the continent isn’t going to rip in half or any other ridiculous notion.”

Tim looked across the desk at Brad. “Take those pictures back downstairs with you and message me two names to join us on that flight. Seasoned people. We need all the PR muscle you guys have. People who can talk smart to the cameras when we get back. I want those names in 15 minutes.”

Brad took the pictures, shaking his head as he stood. “Maybe someone will be down for the free helicopter ride, but no one is going to get excited about the mission. You both need to go see Nadia. There are dangers here that cameras can’t capture.”

Admiral Hodgkins waited until the door latched behind Brad before speaking. “Don’t tell anyone, but we’ve had your entire team debriefed and your man is right, Nadia’s telling an interesting story. She’s still blaming the poison, of course, and we’ll let that be the official line, but hallucinations aren’t a standard effect of this poison and even those not affected by the poison directly are showing some of the same symptoms. That’s why we’re sending medics along this time. Your people aren’t the only ones with worries.”

“What kind of response are you hearing on the other four incidents?” Tim asked. “Are they as concerned as we are?”

“Mixed. Egypt and Peru are both saying the mountains in the images aren’t new. The EU wants Russia to let them send a team to inspect their mountain but so far Moscow’s line is, ‘What mountain?’ Our images show it Southwest of St. Petersburg near the border with Estonia. Both Finland and Latvia have voiced concerns.”

Tim shook his head. “They’ll think any troop movement is aggressive.”

“And that may be valid,” the admiral said. “The Kremlin is likely to take advantage of the situation if they can. Any advantage can be exploited in their opinion. China’s still mute, though.”

“What’s going on there?” Tim asked. “We actually showed some deep movement near Hainan this morning.”

“Our feeds show their new mountain in the Yunnan province. That’s a heavily mountainous region and that technically falls under the jurisdictional concern of Pacific Command. Beijing has been completely mum, though, and we hardly expect any pushback from Myanmar or Vietnam. We’ll just have to watch for signs of movement to try and guess their response.”

“And you’re sure there’s absolutely zero nuclear activity in any of those areas,” Tim asked. “Nadia’s burns seem to indicate otherwise.”

Bob shook his head. “That’s one of the big reasons the DC boys are jumping all over this. The autopsies from your people look like someone who’s been in the middle of a full reactor failure. Even if there was a secret facility in the area, and there’s not, it would require a public acknowledgment for a leak that severe. There is nothing in the known environment that should cause that reaction.”

“Known environment is a key variable,” Dr. Ellit said. “There is a patch near the place our team went, and close to where that new mountain is located, about 400 acres, that’s never been platted. Every time someone tries, something happens. Usually, the team reports faulty equipment and getting lost in a thick fog. This is the first time we’ve had any casualties.”

Bob sighed. “I’m sure you’ve heard, we’re having similar issues just trying to get close to that new landmass. The seas have been worse than I’ve ever seen them and the equipment on our ships has all gone completely wonky. I’m giving them a couple more days but I have a feeling I’m going to have to bring them back home and try an air approach like we are here.”

The admiral paused, then added, “I don’t like the way any of this is going. Here we are talking about things that should be simple: climbing a mountain, exploring new land, and absolutely none of it is going the way we would expect. We’re dealing with some kind of enemy and I don’t think it’s Russia or China because they’re having the same issues. If we knew what it was we’d know how to respond. As it is, I feel like every move we make is a battle operation and we’re putting our lives at risk.”

Tim leaned back in his chair. “It’s not often we lose someone in the line of duty here. Our people are careful, deliberate in their action, and so help me, Admiral, if I find out there’s a nuclear waste facility or something of that magnitude that put our people at risk, I’m not bothering with Secretary Harrison or the President. I’m going straight to the press and someone is going to lose their job.”

The admiral chuckled. “You were a Marine, weren’t you, Tim?”

“Yes, sir,” Tim answered. “Second Division, Tenth Regiment. Retired Captain.”

Bob shook his head. “I can always tell. You guys don’t give a shit about politics or the fallout. You only care about doing what’s right, and there are too many people in places of power who think that’s wrong.” He paused and looked at his watch. “Get your people together. I’ll meet you on the roof.”

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